Lifelong learning 'on verge of extinction' across the UK

A string of cuts and closures leaves the future of adult education unclear. Rebecca Attwood writes

May 14, 2009

Adult education is "on the verge of extinction" in large swaths of the country, a new report has warned.

An 18-month study, carried out for English Heritage, has highlighted a string of cuts and closures of university continuing education departments in recent years.

The universities of Bath, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Durham, Exeter, Leeds, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle, Southampton and Surrey are among those to have scaled back or shut their lifelong learning provision since 2000, the study says.

Many other universities are "in the midst of potentially substantial changes, and what their future holds is as yet unclear."

The research, conducted by the Council for British Archaeology, found there had been a "disastrous" 60 per cent fall in the number of archaeology courses in the past decade.

In 1999, 39 universities offered 1,3 different part-time and adult education archaeology courses, but this year just 28 universities are offering 515 courses.

The report says the Government's "ELQ" decision, which cut funding for courses for people who already have degrees, was putting lifelong learning departments under "severe financial pressure", while course fees were rising.

In the past, universities had seen continuing education as "something of a public service ... which they were willing to support", but this view was changing and staff spoke of centres having to "adapt or die".

"Even the most established adult education providers said that the university sees them as their poor relations and that one of the keys to their future survival should be to make adult education indispensable to the university.

"Some individuals felt that this required a vigorous personal fight, beyond the requirements of their academic provision, without which the university would simply close their department," the report says.

For archaeology, the short-term threat "cannot be underestimated" because adult education courses are an important path into the profession and volunteering. Local archaeology societies' links with universities were also weakening.

"Continuing education effectively functions as a training ground for those undertaking doctoral research at the university and for whom this may be the only opportunity to gain academic teaching experience," the report adds.

The West Country will be particularly hard hit for those wanting face-to-face provision, and by the end of the year only the universities of Hull, Lancaster, Liverpool, Sheffield, Sunderland and York will remain as providers for adult education in the North of England, the report says.

- The Higher Education Funding Council for England will publish a review of the impact of the Government's ELQ policy this autumn.


Cardiff University is the latest institution to announce plans to scale back its lifelong learning provision.

In a letter to staff, the university said it was likely to reduce provision to science, environment and computer studies, social sciences, and modern foreign languages, "accompanied by an associated reduction in the level of staffing required".

Staff at Cardiff's Centre for Lifelong Learning said as many as 250 courses could be cut and 2,000 students hit. The University and College Union said up to 140 jobs could go.

"The closure of the centre will leave a hole in educational provision for the region," said David Wyatt, co-ordinating lecturer for history and archaeology at the centre.

"This decision comes at a time when lifelong learning provision across the higher education sector is being decimated across the UK by universities looking to cut costs," he added.

Editor’s comment

Cardiff has issued the following additional statement: "There is no intention to close the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University. Consultations with staff and their trade unions on possible ways forward are under way. Any final decisions on the proposals from the consultation process will be made by the University's Council, in accordance with the Charter and Statutes of the University. In order to secure the long term future of the Centre's activities one option under consideration is to focus ‘Choices’ (a multidisciplinary programme of short courses aimed at the general public) provision to the following areas: Science, Environment and Computer Studies; Social Sciences including Business; Modern Foreign Languages.”

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